The US government has charged former government contractor Edward Snowden with espionage for leaking top secret documents, according to a sealed criminal complaint [opinion, PDF] filed in the US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia [official website]. The complaint charges Snowden with unauthorized communication of national defense information, theft of government property, and willful communication of classified intelligence information. Each of these crimes falls under the Espionage Act [text profile] and carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. The charges arise from Snowden's disclosure [JURIST report] of US National Security Agency (NSA) [official website] documents detailing telephone and Internet surveillance efforts to the Washington Post and Britain's Guardian newspaper. Snowden is thought to be in Hong Kong, and the US has pledged to seek his extradition.
The revelations surrounding the NSA's surveillance programs have sparked worldwide debate and controversy. Last week the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), in conjunction with the New York Civil Liberties Union [advocacy websites] filed suit [JURIST report] against the NSA challenging its recently revealed phone data collection. Although the president and top official have defended the surveillance as a lawful counterterrorism measure, several US lawmakers have called for a review [JURIST report] of the government's surveillance activity in light of recent reports revealing phone and Internet monitoring. Snowden is a 29-year-old former CIA technical worker that accessed the surveillance files when he was contracted as a civilian to work on projects for the NSA. He stated in an interview with The Guardian that he released the material because he believed the surveillance violated the right to privacy.